So, the UCLA basketball team and UCLA basketball fans now find themselves in virtually the same spot they were almost exactly one year ago. The team basically needs to go on a huge run to close out the regular season portion of its schedule in order to have any realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament when the teams are announced in five weeks. The Bruins couldn’t pull of the upset of Arizona on Friday night in Tucson, falling to the Wildcats by 6 in a game that was highlighted by very poor officiating. Now the UCLA ‘must-win’ tour travels to Tempe on Sunday to take on an Arizona State squad coming off an upset win over USC on Friday (5:30 PM PST, ESPNU).
Let’s get this out of the way first: credit must be given to the coaching staff and the players for the effort put forth in the loss on the Friday to Arizona. There were several indications over the past two weeks that UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford was losing the team. Friday’s game dispelled that notion, at least for the time being, as UCLA played one of its best games of the season. Certainly the Bruins have shown that they can get up for big games and Friday’s game qualified as one. The Bruins showed intensity and focus for much of the game on both ends of the floor. The real question is, now that the lights won’t be so bright, will the Bruins be able to muster anything close to Friday’s effort?
Coach Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils present quite an obstacle to the Bruins. They are well coached and bring, at minimum, a solid effort every game. When the Bruins and ASU faced off in Los Angeles in January it was quite the game, with ASU clearly bringing a lot of focus and grit to the contest and the Bruins mustering the same in a close victory. It was arguably a mental high-point for the Bruins as they were able to retain focus and effort coming off the close win over Arizona on national television just two nights before.
Hurley has made a huge difference for the Sun Devils because, quite frankly, they rank right down there with Washington State in the argument for least talented team on paper in the Pac 12. On paper, the Bruins should win this game, but the game isn’t played on paper. Further, as UCLA fans well know, Alford’s teams have been horrible on the road in his two-plus years in charge, and the Bruins are even worse in the second game of a road swing.
The key for the Bruins will be slowing the backcourt of sophomore Tra Holder (6’1” 180 lbs.) and senior Gerry Blakes (6’4” 195 lbs.). The duo continues to lead the team in scoring, combining for almost 27 PPG between the two. Holder is by far the more dangerous of the two because of his ability to hurt an opponent by driving or with his jump shot. Blakes hasn’t shot well all year and has been particularly poor from behind the arc, averaging roughly 27% on his three-pointers. Holder was very good at Pauley Pavilion, scoring 26 points, but Blakes struggled with only 6. Blakes is able to justify his presence on the court because of his rebounding and defense, although he was one of those responsible for Isaac Hamilton having one of his best games of the year.
Sophomore Kodi Justice (6’5” 195 lbs.) and juniorAndre Spight (6’3” 168 lbs.) provide depth in the backcourt. Justice is almost strictly a three-point specialist. He had a good game in Los Angeles, scoring 11 points on 3-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Conversely, he was 1-5 inside the arc. He is also the least athletic defender in Hurley’s rotation. Spight is more of quick, defensive player who can spell Holder.
The forwards provide some match-up issues for the Bruins. The only true post that plays is senior Eric Jacobsen (6’10” 240 lbs.) and he also lacks real athleticism. Tony Parker and especially Thomas Welsh had their way with Jacobson in the paint in January.
The other forwards are senior Willie Atwood (6’7” 215 lbs.) and juniors Obinna Oleka (6’7” 225 lbs.) and Savon Goodman (6’6” 220 lbs.). Atwood and Oleka actually play a similar style, although Atwood can go outside more and is a generally better offensive player, while Oleka is a better defensive player and rebounder. The key, though, is probably Goodman. He is an undersized power forward who plays physically because he’s never been a good jump shooter. He has better quickness than virtually any player on the opposition who guards him and as a result he can both score inside and get opposing forwards in foul trouble. He also has a nose for the ball and leads the team in rebounding.
For the Bruins to win, Alford needs to figure out what to do defensively, because hiding Bryce Alford is going to be difficult against this team. Assuming Alford starts with the premise of trying to take Holder out of his comfort zone, then that means UCLA’s best perimeter defender needs to guard him. That would be Aaron Holiday, who did a good job on Arizona’s Gabe York on Friday. Assuming Alford sticks with Jonah Bolden in the starting line-up, that means Hamilton probably has to guard Atwood, leaving Bolden to take Oleka and Bryce to guard Blakes. The conference has figured out how to attack UCLA and a main tenet of the strategy is to get the ball to whomever Bryce is guarding. Coach Alford has tried using zones at time to help those in foul trouble and, incidentally, to hide Bryce, but ASU is a good enough outside shooting team that it’d be dangerous to zone too much.
Bryce and his defense have once again become an obvious issue for this team. He certainly isn’t athletic enough to guard a player like Holder without help, but his lack of effort at times has really hurt the team and it could well be the same on Sunday. He isn’t athletic enough to take plays off and when he does, it hurts the team as a whole. This isn’t a good defensive team to begin with and when even one player is out of position or doesn’t give effort then the other four players generally struggle to pick up the slack.
His offense hasn’t been nearly as bad as people think. Although his shooting percentage is under 40%, it’s not as if that’s how he shoots every game. His bad games are truly dreadful (like the game in Seattle without the free throws), but he can otherwise be solid. Sure he has shot selection issues, but his offense isn’t the issue as much as his defense has been. I point this out because chances are that Hurley is going to realize what Coach Alford seemingly hasn’t: that Hamilton has become UCLA’s best and most consistent scorer. This may be the first game where we see a team focus on Hamilton defensively at the expense of giving Bryce more opportunities to shoot. If that’s the case then Bryce can’t be off or the Bruins will be playing for an NIT berth.
Hopefully Coach Alford will find a simple message to keep the team motivated for this game and the ones to follow. Obviously he isn’t going to follow this game preview, but if he were then I would suggest a three-piece message.
First, the Bruins have to worry about one game at a time. It is certainly cliché, but it is true nonetheless. The subsequent games mean nothing if the Bruins don’t take care of business in the game in front of them.
Next, Alford needs to convey a clear message that the Bruins are now fighting for their postseason lives. UCLA has to bring the “good Bruins” to the court for the rest of the season and while they haven’t shown the kind of consistency to get them through a seven-game stretch yet this season, Alford has to hope for a turnaround.
The final thing Alford could do is get the players to believe in the “us-versus-the world” mentality. Teams can do amazing things when they feel they only have each other to lean on. This is very much a “Lavin” argument, but if it worked for one Steve and his teams, why not the other, right?
It’s clear, though, that if the Bruins lose this game then nothing short of a run to the Pac 12 Tournament title game will get them in the Big Dance. Sure, the Bruins could win their final 7 games, but no one thinks that will happen.
Perhaps this is because I am clouded by the fact that I always root for the Bruins, regardless of the situation, but I have a feeling that Alford’s message to the team will resonate and he will pick up his first weekend road win in a long time. ASU left a lot on the court against the Trojans. The Bruins did as well against Arizona, but UCLA has the advantage of playing angry after the way the game on Friday was officiated. It generally is a lot harder for a less experienced team to come back down to earth after the giddiness of a big win.
Arizona State 72